WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
10 Mar 2020 | Podcast

Beyond the Wall: A Rights-Respecting Approach to Migration


Mario Moreno, WOLA’s Vice President for Communications, interviews Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer on current challenges the region faces from ineffective migration policies and protection of migrant rights and what might be done to change the situation.

Beyond the Wall is a bilingual segment of the Latin America Today podcast, and a part of the Washington Office on Latin America’s Beyond the Wall advocacy campaign. In the series, we will follow the thread of migration in the Americas beyond traditional barriers like language and borders. We will explore root causes of migration, the state of migrant rights in multiple countries and multiple borders and what we can do to protect human rights in one of the most pressing crises in our hemisphere.

Sign up for updates here: https://www.wola.org/beyondthewall/signup-beyond-wall/

Music by Blue Dot Sessions and ericb399.

Transcripts are generated using a speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Episode Transcript

Intro clips (00:01):

The countries of the Northern Triangle—Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—are facing a set of conditions that are forcing many families and children to migrate from their community. They’re saying “we’re here in the shelter, I’m afraid to put my kids into school” Crimes, corruption, poverty and inequality. And they don’t have a lot of hope because we know that most people get turned away. These issues are forcing many to seek protection and opportunities elsewhere. What do we project as a country with how we’re treating these people, many of which are seeking protection? Barbed wire on the top of the fence…It looks like World War I out there.

President Donald Trump (00:32):

Someone at border crossing comes in, you say sorry, we’re taking you back. That’s if we’re nice and I want to do that.

WOLA Expert Quote (00:37):

Say you’ve been kidnapped in a Mexican border town, you may feel so unsafe there that you’re willing to run the risk of all the insecurities that led you to flee your home in the first place. But is that really a choice?

Lisette Alvarez (00:49):

Hi, my name is Lisette Alvarez and this is Beyond the Wall.

Speaker 3 (01:02):

Beyond the wall is a bilingual segment of the Latin America today podcast, and a part of the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA’s) Beyond the wall advocacy campaign. In the series, we will follow the thread of migration in the Americas beyond traditional barriers like language and borders. We will explore root causes of migration, the state of migrant rights in multiple countries and multiple borders and what we can do to protect human rights in one of the most pressing crises in our hemisphere. In this first interview, Mario Moreno, WOLA’s VP for communications interviews Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight and Maureen Meyer director for Mexico and migrant rights. The discussion focuses on current challenges the region faces from ineffective migration policies and protection of migrant rights and what might be done to change the situation.

Mario Moreno (01:55):

My name is Mario Moreno. I’m the vice president for communications at the Washington office in Latin America. Today we’re here to talk about central American migration and us migration policy. Now, before I introduce our two experts who are here with us, let me first set the table for you. In the last few years, hundreds of thousands of central American migrants of like dangerous and untenable situation in their home communities. These include poverty, climate change, crime, corruption and violence. These migrants have traversed Mexico facing dual threats from organized crime and corrupt migration or law enforcement officials. Along the way, they’ve navigated the dangers of Mexican border towns and arrived at U S ports of entry where they’ve actively sought to be taken into custody by customs and border patrol protection agents in order to make a heartbreaking request asylum in the United States. This has created a significant policy challenge addressing it requires smart and compassionate policymaking that should include making significant investments to address the root causes of in central American countries, providing for the safety of migrants in transit and strengthening asylum systems in the United States, in Mexico, and other countries in the region. Sadly, which should be characterized as a significant policy and administrative challenge has instead turned into a humanitarian crisis on both sides of the U S Mexico border here to talk about the scale of the humanitarian crisis and present ideas for solutions. WOLA’s director for defense oversight, Adam Isacson and WOLA’s director for Mexico and migrant rights, Maureen Meyer, thank you both for joining this conversation. So in the last several years, the Trump administration has sparked a contentious nationwide debate on border enforcement as his administration has pushed for a border wall. The debate on border enforcement has shifted to extremes and it’s unclear how much progress has been made on the wall itself. Where does this debate actually stand currently, and if you could imagine what a, what a what a, what a human rights respecting alternative to border policy would be, what does that look like for you Adam?

Adam Isacson (04:06):

Thanks Mario. Let me just give a background on where the wall stands real fast. Uh, about a hundred, a little more than a hundred miles of wall had been built. Um, so far. Uh, during the Trump administration, nearly all of that is replacing already existing wall. There’s not much out there that’s new. Um, it has however, completely polarized the debate, uh, here in Washington, uh, in a way that makes our our work challenging. Actually there are no swing votes. Um, the, uh, democratic party is entirely with us, uh, down to the most conservative member. I’m not building any border wall and Mo, nearly all of the Republican party is against us. Very few are crossing the lines. Um, we’ve actually pretty much one in Congress every year when there is an appropriations bill, uh, they give just a pittance of money for the wall. Um, you all remember when Donald Trump closed or the PS shut down the government because he couldn’t get what he wanted out of Congress where we’re losing right now on the wall or on something that just about nobody, including top leadership has influenced, uh, the president declared a state of emergency.

Adam Isacson (05:19):

Um, a law from the 1970s reinterpreted by the Supreme court in the 80s, gives him the power, uh, to take money out of the, of another or agency’s budget, in this case, the huge defense budget and put it into wall building. Um, and as of now, out of every $4 being spent to build new border wall, three of it was not approved by Congress. It’s taken by Fiat. And that power, that emergency power is still be challenged in the court system. Uh, but it may be several more months before we know the outcome of that. And of course it is pretty easy to prove that there’s not an emergency at the border. So that’s where things stand right now. Um, I guess one big challenge right now in Congress, um, is ensuring that our friends are up to date, that they’re not fighting the last war, that they’re not just asking questions as important as it is, that they’re just not just asking questions and holding hearings about family separation, which is, you know, the big heart of 2018 or about kids in cages, the big horror of 18 and 19, but that we’re also talking about the remain in Mexico program. We’re also talking about the shippings of people to Guatemala to go seek asylum there and, and all of the other actions that have been taken, it pretty much shut down the right to seek a salad at the border.

Maureen Meyer (06:34):

Yeah. And I think just to add on that, it’s sort of don’t want to underestimate the dramatic impact that the board construction w the wall construction is having at the border. I’m a native of Arizona. Seeing the amount of Solero cactuses that have been cut down that take 200 years to grow to the height that they are is devastating local communities. Indigenous communities are not being consulted as they slash disregard environmental and other laws to rapidly build more walls in this election year. So I think there is a real concern of just the pace it’s going and yes there are alternatives to this. As you mentioned Mario, we’ve, WOLA, put together lots of proposals on how do you make better use of existing resources, looking at technology, looking at deployments. Also, how do you invest in the ports of entry? I mean if your main concern is illicit entry of drugs in the country and also promoting commerce, a lot more money needs to put into the ports of entry. Looking at how do you hold accountable customs and border protection agents, ice agents that abuse citizens, residents and migrants. And I think those are the other areas where we are working and members of Congress are also really interested in looking at what are the alternatives to a more effective approach to border security and immigration enforcement.

Mario Moreno (07:46):

Great. Uh, thank you both Adam and Maureen for that. You know, it’s clear to me that the border debate is important, but it’s not the entirety of the challenges that we face currently as it relates to migration policy in the United States. There’s all, and I think Adam, you touched on this. There’s been a systematic attempt to end the right to asylum as we know it through the implementation of safe third country deals through the third country asylum ban through Remain in Mexico, while ignoring fundamental investments, uh, to deal with our badly broken asylum system. Maureen, what’s been the impact of this approach on migrants and what are alternatives exist to fixing the asylum system as it stands?

Maureen Meyer (08:23):

I mean, I think first it’s important to run through that sort of series of efforts that have been implemented, like in, in order to limit access to asylum at the border. The first was metering. So limiting how many people could approach a port of entry every day. Adam just sent around another report that came out about about 12,000 people still waiting for a turn to do it the right way. Most people are entering up to 10 if they’re lucky. Families are being admitted a day at different ports of entry. The Remain in Mexico program which is forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their immigration proceedings are happening. About 59,000 people are estimated to have gone through the program. There’s a very short window of victory on Friday when the ninth circuit had ruled that this was violating us law and probably non refoulment. So the idea that you shouldn’t be returning people back to danger, they also granted themselves the administration to stay late Friday evening, meaning that the program continues until the next few days when they’re looking at um, what will be the final resolution of the legality of this program? There is the third country asylum transit ban, which basically means if you crossed into the United States after July 15th, 2019 you can be denied asylum because the U.S. Government has deemed that you transmit it through another country that should have protected you. Like you should have requested asylum in another country before reaching the United States. So it applies to anybody except Mexicans to deal with both Mexicans and any other individual that may not go through this program. There are new fast track programs that are basically streamlining asylum procedures to less than 10 days while people are held in detention with no access to lawyers. So you’re seeing the steady crackdown or the ability to send people to Guatemala. So a cooperation agreement about a thousand people according to Chad Wolf last week, had been sent to Guatemala often not even knowing when they got on a plane where they were going. So we really have very limited ability to access asylum currently at the U S next go border. And it’s clearly an attempt by this administration to limit access to projection. The country limit legal migration of the country as well. And clearly there are things that can be done in the future. Litigation is important. There are lawsuits challenging. Every single one of these measures. We’ve been happy to be part of submitting affidavits and Amicus, two different lawsuits, and there are things that could be reversed because everything that has been implemented so far has been through executive order.

Adam Isacson (10:49):

You had asked, uh, what are alternative approaches to fixing the asylum system? I mean, just in the one minute version of that. Um, first, I mean, we are in this historic moment of human mobility in Latin America. It’s not a good moment. And you have four and a half million Venezuelans all over South America. You’ve got 100,000 Nicaraguans all in just about all in Costa Rica. And of course, uh, about a million essential Americans since 2014 most of the kids and families, we just gotta get used to it. We have to realize we are in a moment of a lot more asylum seekers in our system was set up to handle. So we have to adjust our system. And that’s really five things, some of which I think we’ll discuss in more detail in a minute. One, helping central America stop being a place people feel compelled to flee, helping Mexico shoulder more of the burden and also treat the migrants better as they make the journey and cross fix our ports of entry. People shouldn’t have to cross the Rio Grande or go through the desert. Um, and if they’re wanting to seek us out and they should just be able to show up at a port and ask; alternative state attention so you’re not locked up while you wait for your asylum case to actually come up in court and just more judges work capacity and an independent court system and out independent of the justice department, uh, so that people can actually get a decision quickly rather than wait three or four years in the United States. I mean, that’s in a nutshell what a more humane asylum system would look like,

Mario Moreno (12:08):

You know, something that both of you mentioned is, is Mexico is bearing the brunt of a lot of these decisions. Um, they, Mexico with which has a fundamentally broken migration system to begin with has seen an exponential growth in people applying for asylum in the country. Uh, and, and its immigration system seems to be on the verge of being overrun. Maureen, can you dive into some of the challenges that Mexico is facing as it relates to migrants in Mexico and what can be done to address these challenges?

Maureen Meyer (12:37):

Yeah, I think their biggest challenge is the Trump administration. And responding to threats of tariff. I mean if you look at the way the Mexican government has responded since may and June of last year, it was precisely due to the threat of imposing tariffs on Mexican goods, which forced them to deploy national guardsman. So most of the military elements to Mexico, Southern and Northern borders to stop people from coming apprehensions dramatically increased the apprehended over 186,000 people last year and many of which likely could have qualified for protection or were hoping to request asylum in the United States. So I think there one big challenge is responding to a very fickle and punitive administration here that is using immigration as a political elective electoral issue, but the others just capacity itself. I think it is clear Mexico’s becoming a destination country for more and more asylum seekers in part that’s due to how difficult it is to reach the United States, but it’s also because there is more awareness of how do you qualify for protection in Mexico. You have more and more people effectively settling in Mexico, which means that they, they feel like they can make a home there and that message goes out to other family members. We certainly met asylum seekers in Chapas last summer that said, if I get asylum, I’m staying here, I’m going to Northern Mexico, I have family there, I want to work there. So that’s really, I think, a big role, but they haven’t embraced it completely. Mexico is still facing significant financial challenges. They received over 70,000 asylum claims last year and almost 12,000 claims in the first two months of this year alone. Yet their budget for their asylum system is $2.35 million. That’s really low. It’s, I think it’s about 30 some dollars per asylum seeker, if you want to calculate it that way. Most of their refugee agency Kumar’s budget is supported by the UNHCR, which is doing important work, but I think longer term Mexico certainly needs to invest in its own system and if it’s going to keep enforcing and wanting to do this, government administrations bidding on immigration enforcement, they certainly need to treat people a lot better when they’re detaining them and stop holding them in these very squalid. I think a lot of times detention center conditions that are faced with overcrowding, lack of adequate food, healthcare, et cetera.

Mario Moreno (14:52):

Anything to add here?

Adam Isacson (14:53):

Yeah, no, struck me in Tapachula now has a part of town Tapachula is that a city of about 200,000 people right by the Guatemala border and as a part of town called Little Africa. Uh, because there are so many people from Africa stranded there, or just deciding to settle there at this point, uh, Tijuana has a Haitian neighborhood now, uh, there are, pupusarias popping up around Mexico city and its environments. Uh, this is something, this is a new reality for Mexico, which was never a destination country before. Um, but I’m talking about in those neighborhoods, the people who actually have some legal status, they’ve been through, they’ve gotten asylum or something similar, uh, from Camara. This agency, Maureen mentioned when we visited their office in Tapachula, they were just glutted. They had people massed around their headquarters in this residential neighborhood of Tapachula, almost all of them African or Haitian or Cuban trying to just even get an appointment. And it was utter chaos outside. The director of the office was so backlogged, they didn’t even have, um, uh, resources for printer ink and stuff. Unless UNHCR was helping them out. And she actually just said to us, I keep looking at that ceiling and I can’t believe I haven’t hung myself yet. And that’s no way in which to work on. And when I say the United States need to, it needs to adjust to this new reality of migration. So does Mexico and they’re doing, um, they need to do more than what they can, but they do need to do a lot more and we should be helping them. Um, in addition to just processing people and giving them status, I mean, those who are awaiting, uh, this status or those who are coming through Mexico and don’t have status yet are easy prey for organized crime, for kidnappers, for extortionists, for people, bangs, bands that do assault. And too often the local authorities were in that any part of Mexico they’re in are in league with the bad guys. Uh, uh, part of the corruption or sometimes doing the shaking down themselves. Uh, Mexico needs to do a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot more on the almost complete impunity that people who prey on migrants enjoy in Mexico right now. It’s a very dangerous and terrifying, uh, trip that migrants make across Mexican territory.

Mario Moreno (16:55):

Thank you both. I think the last part of the puzzle here is, is we’ve talked about the U.S.-Mexico border, about the ending of asylum as we know it. We’ve talked about Mexico becoming a destination country, but a big part of this is central America and, and in a critical pieces. How do you address central American migration by investing on solutions to conditions on the ground in these countries? Adam, starting with you, what is the scale of the challenges that are, that are that what Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are facing and how can the U S support progress in these countries?

Adam Isacson (17:29):

The scale is enormous. Uh, these, you know, a lot of us got to know these countries during the years when they are in a state of civil war. Actually, most measures of violence and homicide, um, except for the peak years of the civil Wars. Most measures of violence and homicide are higher now. Uh, the UN, uh, world health organization says that any country with a homicide rate of 10 homicides per 100,000 residents each year is in a state of quote unquote endemic violence. Well, the Northern triangle countries are routinely over 40 or 50 or 100 thousand a year, four or five times that, that, that level, that El Salvador, a couple of years ago, 2015 reached a hundred per a hundred thousand, which is worst than most, uh, of the armed conflicts we’ve seen around the world, even if it’s not formally called an armed conflict. That’s the severity of the problem that’s expelling people that we’re dealing with here. Institutions, uh, those providing security, those providing rule of law have largely collapsed. Um, there are some very brave people in those countries, uh, in prosecutor’s offices. Um, judges, um, people, uh, journalists, human rights defenders who are doing the best they can right now. They’ve been enduring the backlash in all three countries, uh, from really from corrupt elites, uh, who don’t find it to be all that convenient that there’d be a state that’s actually willing to protect people and enforce the rule of law evenly. Um, the backlash has kicked out just in the past few months. Uh, UN and OAS anticorruption bodies that were investigating government corruption and government ties to organized crime. They’re gone now. It’s a key firewall that the Trump administration pretty much blindly allows, allowed to close down and go away from the United States to help. Uh, we can’t just sort of throw money at police. We can’t just throw money at, you know, uh, agricultural programs. Although police reform and agricultural, you know, food safe security is important. We also really need to back the reformers back, the people working to make states function for people. Cause if they don’t, people are gonna keep coming. And you know, what I just proposed, there is not a short term solution. There really is no short term way to prevent large numbers of people from leaving central America. It’s going to be a dangerous and poor place for a while and climate change is going to make it worse. But we have to be focusing on that media time horizon. How can we make it more livable in 10 or 15 years? And that path goes through institutions and reducing impunity.

Maureen Meyer (19:56):

And I think just to look at you see on your screen here, U S assistance by fiscal year, looking at all the different areas that us assistance can be beneficial to supporting efforts in central America. We certainly have worked to try to preserve assistance in central America. So the whole thought of somehow cutting aid because countries are not working hard enough to stop their citizens from leaving is not the solution and not going to really at all address why people continue to flee their homes. And so one is looking at how has you assistance, um, focused, what does it work? Is it working? We had a larger project and talk about at the end what we’re doing that monitors the impact of um, us assistance to central America. But just to add, I think from everything Adam said, if the U S is going to be engaging, ensuring that it’s a large part of the support does go to these crusaders that are working on anticorruption efforts within and outside of government and making sure any U S assistance is conditioned on progress being made by these governments to strengthen public institutions, not just giving money away without having any real oversight over how it’s being used or the commitment of these governments to tackle these deep held problems of weak institutions and widespread corruption.

Mario Moreno (21:06):

So so thank you both sort of laid out a fairly compelling picture that this is, this is a significant issue that spans the entire region and that there’s no clear cut solutions that it’s going to take a while for us to get our hands around. You know, how do we secure the border in a way that respects human rights? How do we strengthen the asylum system? How do we work with Mexico to make sure that migrants in transit or that stay in Mexico are treated with dignity and respect and that will be addressed. Some of these conditions on the ground in central America a lot to tackle. Um, so walk me through how you’re tackling all these issues here at WOLA. What’s, you know, what are you working on?

Maureen Meyer (21:46):

All right, I’ll start. I’m sure Adam has more to say. I mean, a, a big part is working to educate policy makers in Congress about what’s going on at the border and South of the border. So providing them with Up To Date information and analysis on border enforcement and security, what’s happening with asylum seekers that are forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border. What does Mexico’s asylum system look like, what’s happening in central America? And then also urging and encouraging us support for both protection efforts throughout the region, but also, as we said, ongoing assistance to central America. We work to shape media coverage, either that’s pitching stories to reporters, putting reporters in contact with colleagues on the ground. I think it’s been a key part of what we’ve done in the past years of ensuring they understand from people that are working in these communities, what it really looks like and what it, um, what would be policy solutions. We advocate a lot with the Mexican government on their responsibility. All of the concerns we have about what’s happening with asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border with the MPP program, et cetera, are also in part because the Mexican allowed that to happen. They permitted people to be sent back to these dangerous Mexican border towns. So really pushing the Mexican government. We’ve led efforts with other organizations to say, what are you doing as Mexico to protect people that are in need and what are you doing to ensure that you’re building up your own asylum seeker asylum system, sorry. And working investigate the multiple crimes and abuses that happened against migrants on transit. And I think lastly we have, uh, the project that many of you probably heard about with Temple University law school, which is also providing resources for work lawyers working on asylum cases from um, Guatemala, El Salvador. And Honduras. We just launched our third series of resources last in February actually, that look at why different issue, how, how country conditions in central America and how getting that information to lawyers can really support asylum claims here. So I think that’s also been how do we make use of our expertise as on the region versus an organization that does direct legal assistance. What we can provide as the expert analysis and partnering with Temple has been a great way to do that.

Adam Isacson (23:56):

Yeah, I mean, in addition to everything that we’re supporting here from reformers and central America to the ports of entry to everything else, there’s a lot we post. Uh, that’s actually, it’s probably taking most of our time right now. Um, ensuring that the appropriations bills that come out of Congress don’t include a lot of money or any for the wall, uh, for border patrol expansion for a detention space, for ICE, for more military deployments, uh, to the border. Um, and that includes more, uh, budget for humanitarian assistance during processing and efforts to try to change this really increasingly sick institutional culture at border patrol and CBP. And ice. So obviously with the current configuration we have here in Washington, we’re not going to get much of that. We’re going to stop a lot of some of what I just said, but we’re not going to get a real reform agenda passed in Congress in the year 2020. Um, we however, are working with legislators to try to lay the groundwork in the event that there’s a different executive branch next January. We don’t want to have to start from scratch and just have to hit the ground running and decide what it is. Uh, people are going to get or get, get going around. Um, we’re laying the groundwork now and we do that through regular contact with legislators. We’re talking to legislative staff just this afternoon, uh, who are going to visit Mexico Southern border, um, about, you know, how to organize their trip. Um, and we have a lot of conversations like that all the time based really on the field work and research we do, which is expensive, but absolutely essential is what we’re getting a lot of information that no one else gets. Um, in addition to the media work that, that Maureen mentioned. So a lot of this is looking toward, you know, laying the groundwork for next year. If next year ends up with the same configuration, we’ll put it that way. Uh, we’ve got a lot of problems, but we will continue to find ways to, uh, to push back, uh, with every tool available or disposal.

Mario Moreno (25:45):

Great. Well, I want to thank you both for joining this conversation and I want to thank everybody for listening. This is an issue that, as you’ve heard, we’ll continue to track closely. So stay tuned for updates.

Speaker 3 (25:59):

Join WOLA and advocating for migrant policies that respect human rights. If you can do one thing after listening to this episode, share what you’ve learned on social media using the hashtag beyond the wall. You can also stay updated by signing up for our newsletter at wola dot org forward slash beyond the wall. Thank you for listening.